The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB) has published its report, Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good. Its authors begin from the proposition that
“Religion and belief are driving forces today. Society is not about to return to the past when religion and religious authorities dominated. It is clear, though, that they raise issues that have urgently to be addressed.”
The report notes that the UK now includes a large proportion of people who identify themselves as non-religious but that, at the same time there is a growth in religions other than Christianity and in some Christianity Churches. The picture is complicated by the growth of religious fanaticism. The report also notes that:
“Religion … is not always and for everyone a matter of personal choice. It can be given and unchosen and in this respect it is similar to human characteristics such as ethnicity and gender … Religion has the potential to be both a public good and a public bad, and governments must have due regard for it.” [2.8: emphasis added].
And it is, perhaps, precisely because “religion” can be both a force for good and a force for evil that the commission was established in the first place. So what (if anything) is to be done?
The Report notes some emerging trends:
- The increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities.
- The general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice.
- The increased diversity among people with a religious faith: Judaism, once the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK, is now the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
Furthermore, the intra- and inter-faith disputes linked to today’s geopolitical crises across the Middle East and many parts of Africa and Asia are often reflected back into UK society, “creating or exacerbating tensions between different communities”.
The authors suggest that
“the resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions about the negative impact of such changes on society. These, in turn, may feed the very anxieties about immigration and the fear of ‘the other’ that need to be addressed.”
They argue that
“religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation. Religious and belief identities … can serve as forces both for good and for ill. And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good.”
The report starts from a vision “of a society at ease with itself in which all individuals, groups and communities feel at home, and in whose flourishing all wish to take part.” In such a society:
- all “feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final”;
- all are “treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities”;
- all know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment and their valued;
- all may express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others;
- all “are confident in helping to shape public policy; and
- all “feel challenged to respond to the many manifest ills in wider society” for the common good.
However, the authors conceded that none of the big words and phrases – ‘positive’, ‘national story’, ‘respect’, ‘concern’, ‘enrichment’, ‘manifest ills’, ‘common good’ – is free of obscurity or ambiguity [3.2]. And as to “being British”, the report acknowledges that “in two of the four constituents of the United Kingdom a large minority of citizens would currently like to leave the union” [3.4].
The commission makes a series of recommendations, of which the principal ones are as follows:
- “A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life.” It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might be a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.
- Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society, and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge. Educational and professional bodies should draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognise and celebrate best practice in the media.
- The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England, as recommended by the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords.
- All those responsible for national and civic events, whether in the public sphere or in church, including the Coronation, should ensure that the pluralist character of modern society is reflected.
- Funding for chaplaincies in hospitals, prisons and higher education should be protected with equitable representation for those from non-Christian religious traditions and for those from humanist traditions.
All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed.
The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.
- Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (‘faith schools’) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.
- In the light of the public sector equality duty (s 149 Equality Act 2010) the Equality and Human Rights Commission or similar should produce best practice guidelines on matters of religion and belief in the initial training and continuing professional development of staff employed in higher education, in professions such as law, medicine, nursing and social work and in government and public administration.
- Serious and ongoing attempts need to be made to increase religion and belief literacy among all journalists and reporters; and the report suggests various was in which that might be achieved.
- The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship Thought for the Day to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.
Major commercial channels and stations should examine their policies on the coverage of religious topics to ensure that the place of religion and belief in society is adequately represented.
- A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.
- Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and inter-worldview encounter and dialogue. Such dialogue should involve Dharmic as well as Abrahamic traditions, young people as well as older, women as well as men, and local groups as well as national and regional ones.
- Clergy and other opinion leaders should have a sound understanding of the traditions of religion and belief in modern society.
- Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.
- The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals such as ecclesiastical courts, Beit Din and Shari’a councils.
- An appropriate body such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Law Commission should review how the categories of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and whether there are certain unjust anomalies which must be recognised and addressed.
- A focused piece of policy work should be carried out revisiting the race, ethnic and religious categories created in the 1970s and 1980s and exploring how they could be made more relevant, meaningful and fair in the light of more recent experience.
- In cases where government wishes to discuss or amend legislation that directly affects communities of religion or belief, it should be adopted as a principle that government ensures that credible academic research is used as a basis for its proposals and that there is early consultation with communities that could be most affected.
- Working with faith communities may require public officials to undergo special training to ensure that they have knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of the communities they serve.
- In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the Government should seek to promote rather than limit freedom of enquiry, speech and expression and should engage with a wide range of affected groups (including those with which it disagrees) and with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.
The commission, chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss at the invitation of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, included representatives from most of the major faith-groups in the UK, together with the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association. It spent two years from September 2013 conducting what the report describes as “the first systematic review of the role of religion and belief in the UK today”. Twenty people from across Great Britain and Northern Ireland accepted an invitation to take part and they were supported by a secretariat. However, it should be stressed that, however worthy its members, the commission was entirely unofficial and nothing whatsoever to do with the Government.
Reactions to the report have been fairly predictable: Thinking Anglicans has posted a very useful roundup of links to a wide range of media comments.
In Christian Today Ruth Gledhill dismissed it as ‘The worst report I’ve ever read‘. The Church of England gave the report a cautious welcome but suggested that it misunderstood the role of Church schools and that if there was a significant problem with its schools it was one of oversubscription. The Church was, perhaps, on less secure ground in suggesting that “if the law on collective worship were repealed, schools would risk losing this vital element of shaping a community that reflects the full breadth of human experience”. Possibly: possibly not – does collective worship of “a broadly Christian character” truly reflect “the full breadth of human experience”? The British Humanist Association’s reaction was broadly welcoming, while the National Secular Society criticised the report as ‘completely at odds with the religious indifference that permeates British society‘.
And the situation is possibly even more complex than the authors of the report suggest. They note, for example, that
“non-religious humanistic beliefs are widespread – for example, three fifths believe that ‘scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe’ as against a fifth who believe that ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’.”
But are those two positions necessarily antipathetic? It surely depends what you mean by “a complete understanding of the universe”: does any serious cosmologist who happens also to be a religious believer (John Polkinghorne? David Wilkinson?) regard the Old Testament creation myths as somehow trumping the scientific evidence?
Perhaps inevitably, the report seems largely concerned with institutions rather than with individuals: how, for example, do you encourage “more structured dialogue between those who are religious and those who are not”? [6.35]. Such an encounter would not be between the Joe Bloggs in the pew and the Joanna Bloggs who wouldn’t be seen dead in one – it would almost certainly be between senior members of faith communities and senior members of organisations such as the BHA and the NSS. That is not to belittle any of those organisations: merely to query the degree to which “faith leaders” necessarily represent the people whom they claim to lead. Part of the problem with the current situation, it seems to me, is that what faith and community leaders (of all faiths and none) decide on moral and ethical issues sometimes fails to trickle down to their wider communities.
To conclude, it is hardly for me to take a view on the merits or otherwise of the report – though I did contribute to a memorandum on some of the legal aspects of the issue submitted by a group at the Cardiff Centre for Law & Religion. That said, however, no report that the commission could possibly have produced was ever going to please everyone; and at least it represents a serious attempt to get to grips with some of the major issues.
I suggest you read it for yourself.